Kilimanjaro: climbing Africa’s highest mountain

Matt Westby on the summit of Kilimanjaro

Matt Westby on the summit of Kilimanjaro

By Matt Westby

As the clock ticks past 6am, another gargantuan gust of wind funnels down from the north and clatters into me head-on.

It brings with it a cold so penetrating the water in my bottle turns to ice and the ends of my fingers go numb. I plod on nonetheless, perhaps none the wiser at this suffocating altitude.

But then, a few paces further – m o re shuffles than steps – the incline upon which I have toiled since midnight flattens and where there was once only more frozen ground to climb, there is nothing but moonlit sky.

Kibo Crater, Kilimanjaro

The stunning Kibo Crater at first light

Six hours after breaking final camp, I am on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, 5,895m above Africa.

To the east, the first light of dawn peers over the jagged peak of Mawenzi, while to the west, the plains of the Seregenti prepare to welcome a new day. Behind it, a whole continent waits patiently in line.

Having climbed Kilimanjaro for the best part of a week, not knowing whether fate would allow me to stand here or not, it is a quite overwhelming feeling. Relief, exhilaration and near-disbelief all fight for prominence.

The ice-capped summit of Kilimanjaro

The ice-capped summit of Kilimanjaro

Before now I thought I knew my limits – the depths of my perseverance and determination. But I was wrong, and to have found that out fills me with a satisfaction I have never felt before.

My moment of elation is broken by another buffeting gust. The wind on Kilimanjaro’s summit has no respect for life-forms and duly continues in its quest to blow me off the mountain and into Tanzania.

As proud as I am to be here, its force takes its toll and I can’t help but ache for the warm relief of my tent and sleeping bag. After all, the cruel hand of exhaustion gripped me long ago.


Looking back up to the top on the descent back down

My guide, Jasper, shouts over: “Five minutes only. It is too cold to stay longer.” Five minutes was hardly the amount of time I envisaged staying at the summit, but the sub-zero temperatures are biting, it is too windy and, most of all, I am too utterly fatigued to protest.

A few photos and a moment or two’s contemplation later and I leave it all behind to descend a happy man – a two-year dream having been realised.

My ascent up Kilimanjaro had begun five days earlier at the gate of the most frequented summit route – the Machame – 1,800m up the south-western slopes.

Kilimanjaro Machame route

The ascent via the Machame route starts in thick forest

At this height, vegetation not only survives on the mountain but thrives, and the first day of the climb was through thick jungle.

The effects of altitude sickness are almost non-existent here but Jasper nevertheless called over at every opportunity: “Pole, pole,” meaning

“Slowly, slowly” in Swahili. “Hakuna matata , ” I replied – “No problem.”


The summit is ever-present sight on the climb up

The acacias began to recede the following morning, unveiling stunning views of Mount Meru to the west that accompanied us throughout day two as we climbed up towards the Shira Plateau – a 3,900m-high expanse of flat, rocky terrain which sits in the shadow of  Kilimanjaro’s ice-capped summit.

Leaving camp early on day three, we traversed east around the mountain and up to the Lava Tower at 4,600m, before retreating back to Barranco Camp with the first signs of altitude sickness in tow.


Climbers quickly rise above the clouds, as Mount Meru looms in the distance

My head ached as I ate dinner that night and, fatigued as I was by the oxygen-starved atmosphere, I retired to my tent early, one eye on what lay ahead.

Day four began with a short, sharp climb up the Barranco Wall – the only section of Kilimanjaro where scrambling skills are called on – be fore following the undulating path to Barafu, our last camp prior to the summit.

Well aware that we would be setting off for the top at midnight that night (in order to get there for daybreak), I turned in just before 7pm.

Kilimanjaro Machame route

Emerging from the tree line on the Machame route

But Barafu lies on an exposed ridge and no sooner had I zipped up my sleeping bag than winds began to sweep across the mountain that wouldn’t die down until they had tortured me and the other summit hopefuls for 12 hours.

Needless to say, with my tent flapping furiously, I didn’t sleep a wink. For four hours, I lay there nervous, my confidence of success on Kilimanjaro diminishing.

Then 11pm finally came and it wastime to get ready. I applied all my layers – right from thermals to waterproofs and windproofs – before joining Jasper for a light “breakf ast” of tea and biscuits. It felt like the last supper.

Kilimanjaro Shira Plateau

Looking across the vast Shira Plateau

Glare from the head torches of those keen souls who had already set off could be seen cascading up from Barafu when we left shortly after midnight.

“Pole, pole,” Jasper said again, but soon he had me motoring on at a punishing speed that saw us overtake other climbers at almost every corner.

The full moon illuminated the path ahead and we blazed a trail into it. For two-and-a-half hours I felt fine and, still drinking water at a rate of four litres a day, we made great progress, despite the wind.

Then, without warning, I hit the “wall”. Not that there was a spring in my step before, but now I was barely lifting my feet as a cocktail of altitude and exhaustion struck my beleaguered body.

Kilimanjaro Shira Camp

Sleeping under the stars - and summit - at Shira Camp

Jasper had told me I could have no more than one short break every hour. At 4.30am, we passed an inviting rock and I couldn’t resist slumping on to it. I took a gulp of my now slushy ice water and welcomed the little strength it returned to me.

Jasper, who later said the wind was the worst he had ever experienced in ten years on Kilimanjaro, wasn’t happy. “Can you not get to the top?” he stropped. “I can,” I replied, and from that point, for some reason, the next hour and a half seemed to fly by.

Forty-five minutes later I nearly fell over at the site of the jaw-dropping Kibo Crater at Stella Point (5,600m), and another 45 minutes later I strode triumphantly on to the summit.


The jagged peak of Mawenzi to the west

Looking back now, I have no doubt that it was physically and mentally the most challenging thing I have ever done, but it was also the most rewarding.

Having sampled the elation of making the summit of Kilimanjaro, I found myself asking: which mountain can I climb next?

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